Religious liberalism

Religious liberalism is a form of approach to religion which is critical, rationalistic or humanistic.[1] It is an attitude towards one's own religion (as opposed to criticism of religion from a secular position, or as opposed to criticism of a religion other than one's own) which contrasts with a traditionalist or orthodox approach, and it is directly opposed by trends of religious fundamentalism.

"Liberalism" in this context conveys the sense of classical liberalism as it developed in the Enlightenment era, which forms the starting point of both religious and political liberalism; but religious liberalism does not necessarily coincide with "liberalism" in its various contemporary meanings in political philosophy. Attempts to show a link between religious liberal and political liberal adherents have proved inconclusive in a 1973 study,[2] Usage of the term "liberalism" in the context of religious philosophy became established in the first part of the 20th century; in 1936, Edward Scribner Ames wrote in his article 'Liberalism in Religion': "The term "liberalism" seems to be developing a religious usage which gives it growing significance… sharply contrasted with fundamentalism… [which describes] a relatively uncritical attitude." [3]

Religious liberalism is ultimately based in the attempt to reconcile pre-modern religious tradition with modernity. This project is, of course, contentious. Religious traditionalists, who reject the idea that tenets of modernity should have any impact on religious tradition, challenge the concept of religious liberalism. Secularists, who reject the idea that implementation of rationalistic or critical thought leaves any room for religion altogether, likewise dispute religious liberalism. "Liberal Christianity" is an umbrella term for the developments in Christian theology and culture since the Enlightenment of the late 18th century. It has become mostly mainstream within the major Christian denominations in the Western World, but is opposed by a movement of Christian fundamentalism which developed in response to these trends, and also contrasts with conservative forms of Christianity outside the Western world and outside the reach of Enlightenment philosophy and modernism, mostly within Eastern Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church in particular has a long tradition of controversy regarding questions of religious liberalism. Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), for example, was seen as moderately liberal by 19th-century standards because he was critical of papal infallibility, but he explicitly opposed "liberalism in religion" because he argued it would lead to complete relativism.[4] The Anglican Christian apologist C. S. Lewis voiced a similar view in the 20th century, arguing that "theology of the liberal type" amounted to a complete re-invention of Christianity and a rejection of Christianity as understood by its own founders.[5]

Alongside the development of liberal theology in Christianity, German-Jewish religious reformers began to incorporate critical thought and humanist ideas into Judaism from the early 19th century. This resulted in the creation of various non-Orthodox denominations, from the moderately liberal Conservative Judaism to very liberal Reform Judaism. The moderate wing of Modern Orthodox Judaism, especially Open Orthodoxy, espouses a similar approach.

While Christianity and Judaism in the western world have had to deal with modernity since its emergence in the 18th century - or even since the Renaissance and its consequences of Reformation and Counter-Reformation - Islam (along with Jewish and Christian traditions in the Middle East) was not immediately affected by modernity and Enlightenment thought. Such liberal movements within Islam as exist as of 2015 are mostly limited to intellectuals active in the western world, with a number of organizations founded in response to the Jihadism of the early 21st century, such as Progressive British Muslims (formed following the 2005 London terrorist attacks, defunct by 2012), British Muslims for Secular Democracy (formed 2006), or Muslims for Progressive Values (formed 2007).

Similarly, eastern religions were not immediately affected by liberalism and Enlightenment thought, and have partly undertaken reform movements only after contact with western philosophy in the 19th or 20th centuries. Thus Hindu reform movements emerged in British India in the 19th century. Buddhist modernism (or "New Buddhism") arose in its Japanese form as a reaction to the Meiji Restoration, and was again transformed in the United States of America from the 1930s, notably giving rise to modern Zen Buddhism.

See also


  2. The Correspondence between Religious Orientation and Socio-Political Liberalism and Conservatism Richard J. Stellway, Sociological Quarterly Vol 14 No3 1973, pp 430-439
  3. International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Jul., 1936) (pp. 429-443)
  4. "Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another…", JH Newman 'Biglietto Speech'
  5. "All theology of the liberal type involves at some point - and often involves throughout - the claim that the real behavior and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars." Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, Christian Reflections, 1981, republished in Fern Seed and Elephants, 1998
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